The Gatekeeper's Challenge (8 page)

BOOK: The Gatekeeper's Challenge
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The idea didn’t sound too bad. “I don’t know.”

“Matthew’s out in the truck and Todd and Ray are in Todd’s truck behind us. Todd wanted to follow Matthew. And Bobby will be there, too. You’ll have plenty of dance partners to keep your mind off of you know who. And Pete’s band won’t be playing all night. They’re one group of a handful. Pete’ll want to dance with you, too. Come on, what do you say?”

Vicki now hovered in the doorway of the bathroom. For the first time, Therese noticed how pretty she looked with her hair pulled away from her face instead of scraggily falling into it. Her brown eyes had been
outlined with make up, and her pale cheeks had spots of color. She wore a summer dress and sandals—which would be hard to dance in on the concrete floor at the Pagosa Springs Fairgrounds, but her slight figure and toothpick legs were softened by them. “I think you should go for it. I agree with Jen.”

“But I haven’t even showered.”

Jen helped Therese to her feet. “That’s alright. We’ll wait for you downstairs. I’ll tell the guys to come in. I’ll go make some Crystal Light lemonade and some of that spray cheese on crackers. I saw it all out on the counter on the way up. We’ll be fine.”

Jen and Vicki left the room.

As Therese showered and the warm water fell over her, she caught herself starting to talk to Than. She had been praying to him for ten long months, and it had become a habit. She wasn’t always aware she was doing it. He had become her invisible best friend, and cutting off communication with him would be harder than she had at first thought. So maybe she would channel her thoughts to another god. She decided Poseidon might not be the best pick, because she still suspected he might have had something to do with that morning’s earthquake. And although she really liked Artemis, the goddess of wild things hadn’t been too happy with her at their last encounter. Artemis thought Therese was stupid for loving Than. Athena had said the same last summer. Well, maybe both goddesses would be glad to hear Therese’s plan of action. But what if Therese changed her mind? What if she eventually decided she didn’t hate Than? Would Artemis and Athena be tolerant of her indecision? What if the goddesses turned on Than?

Now Aphrodite, the goddess of love, understood love’s ups and downs, but Aphrodite might not like Therese’s plan of going to the Underworld and telling
Than off. Aphrodite might try to talk her out of it. Therese didn’t want to risk that. She was dead bent on telling off Than to his face.

Persephone and Demeter wouldn’t do, either. They were
Than’s mother and grandmother. Therese couldn’t expect them to have an unbiased stance. They’d probably sympathize with Than and thwart Therese’s efforts.

Of course Ares was out of the question. The god of war had been behind her parents’
death. He wanted to prevent her mother from finding the cure to the mutated Anthrax C. He wanted foreign coups to have a useful store of the mutated Anthrax so a new balance of power could come into the world. Ares wanted to see America fall. Plus, he hated Therese and would take any opportunity to bring her down. He was against her becoming a god because he knew he could never count on her support.

Zeus was just out of her league. She was scared to death of him.
Hades, too. Besides, Hades clearly showed his disdain for her when she refused to kill McAdams. And Than’s sisters, the Furies, were intimidating to say the least. She couldn’t shrug off their description of the way they beat information out of their suspects: blood dripped from their eyes, snakes crawled through their hair, and piercing screams came from their throats. No, Therese didn’t think she’d pray to them.

She didn’t really know Hestia, Hera, Apollo, or Hephaestus. But Hermes! The messenger of the gods had once been her friend.

Therese rinsed the shampoo from her hair and embraced this new idea of Hermes. He had liked Therese. They played their instruments together and shared laughs together and he had been supportive on Mount Olympus. He had had his share of love affairs and children and so could understand Therese’s heartbreak. And yet, Therese had the sense he wouldn’t let her hatred of Than ruin his own relationship with the god of the dead. Hermes it was.

She turned off the shower and dried off, and as she put on her blue jeans and green cotton blouse, she attempted her first prayer to him: “Hermes, do you remember me? It’s Therese. I hope you don’t mind if I talk to you.
Thanatos has broken my heart.”

She threw on a little makeup and blow-dried her hair. That was enough for now. She would wait and tell Hermes her plans later. Tonight, she was going to have fun and forget all about
Than. Around her neck was Athena’s locket reminding her that
the most common way people give up their power is by believing they have none.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Nine: The Maenads

 

“Go with food,” Demeter had said, “and a belly full of wine.” Than’s grandmother had no other words of wisdom, tricks, or ideas to help him get on Dionysus’s good side except to go into the forest of Mount Kithairon at night emboldened with alcohol and offering food. If he hesitated and showed the slightest insecurity, he would be ripped to pieces.

“They may rip you to pieces anyway,” she had said.

So here he was, only yards away from where the god and his followers were said to be, and his confidence waned. He had a bag of food slung over his shoulder—fruits and bread Demeter had given him—but he hadn’t taken his grandmother’s advice concerning the wine. He wanted to be in control of his actions. He could be merry and bold without alcohol—at least, he hoped he could as he crept through the woods.

Much of the mountain was bare and rocky, but here, in a smattering of thick pines, he could see a campfire in the dis
tance and a hazy line of smoke rising into the night sky. Laughter and singing made the group seem less daunting, but a sudden demonic shriek chilled him and made him hesitate again. Then an idea came to him, hard and fast like a thunderbolt: his sisters. The Furies. Their presence might help his cause. He hadn’t asked for help because he didn’t want his father to get wind of his plans and try to stop him, but now that he was irrevocably in the middle of them, he disintegrated and dispatched to seek his sisters out. Meanwhile, he slowly stole through the woods, hoping to catch a glimpse of the maenads before they noticed him.

Seeing Therese so angry and hurt this afternoon when he went for the hamster had added a greater sense of urgency to
Than’s already urgent mission. If his presence wasn’t lethal to her, he would have stayed to give a report on his progress, but that was impossible. Hell, he would have swept her in his arms and caressed her face with his lips. He would have…oh, he moaned as he picked through the branches. If she really loved him and had faith in him, she’d wait. Her lot was to wait. His was far worse. His foot cracked a twig and caught the attention of a woman standing ten feet away, on the outskirts of the group.

She looked back at him suspiciously. Her curly brown hair was knotted on her head and ringed with ivy. She wore animal skins around her breasts and hips, but her shoulders and legs were bare, and she held a thyrsus—a staff tipped with a pinecone. “What’s this?” She spoke softly, to herself. No one else in the group seemed to notice.

“I bring gifts,” he said, holding out an orange. “I’ve come to celebrate, if you’ll have me.”

His heart raced as he awaited her reply. She narrowed her eyes and took a step closer. “Is it a real orange? They’re my favorite, you know.”

He tossed it to her. “It’s yours. From Demeter, my grandmother.”

The woman caught the orange, tore off the peel in less than five seconds, and put the meat to her nose. She smiled and savagely devoured the fruit. She turned to
Than with juice dripping down her chin. “Who are you?”

“Someone who has finally found true love.”
It sounded trite, but it was true, and he thought these women, who danced and loved and drank, would appreciate it. He knew if he revealed himself, he’d disgust her. No one wants Death. “May I join the party?”

At that moment, another woman turned and noticed him. Her curly black hair flowed around her face, which was stained red with blood or wine,
Than didn’t know which. She held a chalice in one hand and a thyrsus in the other. A panther skin hung over her shoulder, its head still intact at her breast. “Who’s this?”

“He says he’s found true love,” the first maenad said to the other. “For a moment, I thought he meant me.”

“We’re about to dance,” she said. “The flutes and lyres are warmed up. We can’t wait for introductions.” The woman turned her back to him and began to move her body in a jerky, frenzied movement, not too unlike what Than had seen with epileptics as they fell to their deaths.

The first maenad took his hand and tugged him along the perimeter of the other raving dancers. What began as a soft tap-tap of the drums exploded into a booming, pounding
thrash. Than did his best to mimic the movements of the others, feeling foolish but desperate to win their approval. The maenad on the end of his arm shrieked with joy and jerked around like a raving lunatic. Soon he felt himself surrounded by the throng of moving bodies bumping against him. The ecstatic women in the crowd seemed oblivious to his presence and to each other, as though lost in a trance, each singing her own song. The chaos and confusion were overwhelming, making it difficult for Than to feign joy.

This difficulty increased when the maenads fell upon a snake someone had thrown into the dancers. He watched with disgust as they tore the creature to pieces and stuffed chunks of it into their mouths. He disintegrated to escort the snake’s soul. Next
came a rabbit, flung through the air by someone he could not see and caught in the hands of the mass of women, ripping and tearing the terrified, struggling creature. He disintegrated again. The bodies soon made way for two maenads pulling a thrashing buck by the horns into the center. Its limbs and head were ripped from its body and devoured by the dancers. Another disintegration. Than fragmented constantly, multiple times per second, so often did the living die. A second group fell on the remaining lump of carcass quivering in the grass until it was eaten up, blood dripping down chins.

“Now we are one with nature,” one of them said in a bold voice. “Their souls belong to us.”

Than decided now would not be a good time to correct her. Their souls had gone on. Instead, he opened his sack and tossed oranges and apples to the crowd. The fruit was gladly received and consumed as savagely as the animals. A ring of dancers formed around Than. They touched his arms and mussed his hair, smiling at him seductively. Then one maenad circled her arms around his waist and kissed him on the lips. As suddenly as she had come to him, she pulled away, screaming.

“Death!” she cried. “Death is among us!”

The joyful faces turned to panic and terror. Than wasn’t sure why. They were immortal. He had suspected they wouldn’t be too keen to see him if they knew his identity, but he never thought they’d fear him.

“Death is among us!’ another shrieked.

At first the maenads scattered from him, leaving him alone in the center of their ring. Then someone yelled, “Kill him! Kill Death, so we can live forever!”

Before
Than could say anything, the raving women rushed at him and grabbed a hold of his arms.

“Wait!” He struggled against them, trying not to hurt them as he flung them from his side. “Get back! Get back! Back, I say!”

A maenad grasped his thumb and tore it from his hand, sending shards of pain, deep and intense, through his arm and head. “Ahhh!” He held the hurt hand in the other and once again shouted, “Back!” as he now elbowed the women more forcefully than he dared to before, his blood spurting onto their dresses and skin.

Where were his sisters? He’d been hunting for them in
Tartarus and all over the globe. He didn’t dare ask his father where they were; Hades would want to know why. Than prayed out to them again and again. “Mount Kithairon! I need you at Mount Kithairon!”

To the maenads, he shouted, “Get b
ack and listen to me! I haven’t come to take anyone! I’ve come to see Dionysus!” His hand throbbed. He spotted the woman with his thumb and he charged at her and took it back, but at the sound of their lord’s name, the maenads stopped attacking him. He stood, bewildered by their silence and stillness, searching their faces. Then a youthful god about his own age strolled to the center of the ring to face him. A group of satyrs hovered behind him. His hair was golden, like Hip’s, but long and braided in two ropes at the back of his head. He wore nothing but a strap of leather at his loins.

“What does Death want with me?”

“A favor,” Than replied.

Dionysus lifted his head and laughed, and the maenads and satyrs did the same.

Than spotted Alecto materialize above him, but he warned her off. “Tell the others I don’t need them,” he prayed silently to her. “And please, say nothing of this to our father.”

BOOK: The Gatekeeper's Challenge
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